(Minnesota) On January 16, 2015, “A Call to Action” gathered to present a group message to the State Guardian ad Litem Board. This was the 4th Board meeting that A Call to Action attended. During the public comments, the group presented concerns about the Guardian ad Litem program in general, and a specific GAL, Jamie L. Manning. A Call to Action continues to ask for a fair, and transparent system with clear and concise standards and to have our complaints, and supporting evidence, heard and investigated with transparency.
On a cold morning in January, traffic shuffled across the city at an icy, sluggish rate toward monolith skyscrapers edged in mist. A child threw one last snowball before entering the warmth of a yellow school bus. Coffee shops across the city sizzled, and brewed. An ordinary day… almost…
At the same time, across the city and greater metro area, several families went through their morning routine with a sense of purpose. From different neighborhoods, in different parts of the metro area, their journey began. The meeting also included friends and family members as well as fellow community members who came to show support.
At one time, all of the parents in “A Call to Action” were involved in family court litigation, and all had Jamie L. Manning appointed to their case as Guardian ad Litem (Ms. Manning also works in private practice, and is a former partner of Banga & Manning). These parents are a diverse group but what they have in common is that they have experienced misconduct when Ms. Manning was appointed as GAL for their child. Ms. Manning’s unprofessionalism and reckless disregard to perform the statutory responsibilities of a Guardian ad Litem (as detailed in Minnesota Statutes Section 518.165) resulted in these fit, loving parents losing custody of their children. The children were then removed from a safe, stable home and placed in the care and custody of an abusive or otherwise largely unfit parent.
The first 15 minutes of the State GAL Board meeting is a public forum. During this public forum, “Parent A” from A Call to Action spoke about her experiences with Ms. Manning, and the lack of accountability (and lack of an effective complaint system) in the GAL program.
Parent A offered a heartbreaking story of how she survived abuse only to have Ms. Manning recommend sole custody to the abuser, and without any justification, has greatly reduced her parenting time so that she has only minimal contact with her children. Parent A described that the abuser was diagnosed with a “personality disorder” and has a long history of criminal and anti-social behavior, and had over a dozen documented allegations of abuse against him when awarded sole custody. Parent A also described one example of Ms. Manning’s misconduct that happened when Parent A called Child Protective Services (CPS) to report a concern with her children. CPS began to investigate the concern, which involved the father failing to properly supervise the children, and one of the children being injured. Parent A described that Ms. Manning lied to CPS in order to get them to close their investigation. After the investigation was closed, Ms. Manning then worked to give the alleged abuser sole custody of the children. As a result of the children being placed into the custody of an abuser, the children suffer from ongoing psychological issues related to abuse, and suffer from the grief and loss of their mother.
Another speaker from A Call to Action, also a parent, presented a group message citing concerns with the GAL program. Concerns included the following:
· There is a lack of procedures outlining the duties, ethical standards, standards of conduct for GALs. There can be no accountability without clear and unambiguous standards.
· There is a lack of a meaningful complaint procedure in place to file complaints against a Guardian ad Litem. The current procedure is inadequate; as it requires the judge actively involved in the case to hear complaints, while at the same time, it is forbidden for a presiding judge to investigate a GAL.
It is unreasonable for the presiding judge to hear a complaint against a GAL whom he has a professional relationship with. The judge largely depends on the GAL to provide relevant information and recommendations that often determine the outcome of a case This practice often places the judicial officer with the convenient option to abdicate their judicial responsibilities and simply endorse the GAL’s recommendation without any healthy skepticism.
It is also unreasonable for a judge to determine the misconduct of a GAL without a baseline set of standards to hold the GAL accountable with.
· The other alternative is to file a complaint with the GAL Program Manager. The lack of complaint procedure does not ensure that a complaint is actually being heard or responded to. If the Program Manager fails to respond or take action, parents are given no recourse to have their complaints heard, and investigated.
· Parents have no access to or are denied the ability to request access to the GAL files. CPS has a process to request records, with certain information redacted, but the GAL program does not.
· Concerns were expressed with the GAL’s power and control to mandate specific professionals to provide services for the family (therapists, parenting classes, evaluations, supervised visitation etc). Families have little or no say in choosing their own providers. As a result, families are being forced to pay exorbitant fees for providers because the provider is not in their insurance network. Or the provider may not fit the parent’s religious or cultural or other personal preference. There is also an inherent problem that when a GAL selects a provider, by name or agency, this creates an environment ripe for cronyism and bias and cross-referral conflicts of interest.
· Concerns about the fees created by the permissive appointment of a GAL in family court was raised. Comments were made about fees needing to take into consideration the ability to pay of a party.
Notable was the fact that the GAL Board shared draft documents that demonstrated that they are in the process of internally addressing some of the issues that we have raised since September 2014. We hope to continue to build on this working relationship.
The meeting was productive but also, at times, emotional as we grappled with how systemic failures have tremendously impacted families, and the well-being of children.
A Call to Action thanks the Board for the opportunity to speak, and for their efforts in hearing and responding to the concerns raised. A Call to Action continues to work hard and will keep you updated on our progress.